Once upon a time, while working at Stiff, it was my job to do PR for the release of the new album by Desmond Dekker. The label, it seemed, couldn’t find any new artists to sign so we were issuing albums by acts who’d slipped off the rock n’ roll map in the hope of rekindling their careers.
Des was a quiet man of average build who would arrive in the office wearing a beret to hide his receding hairline. This ordinary man, who’d just ridden up from South London on the bus, was a musical groundbreaker: the first artist to ever have a Number one record on the pop charts with a reggae song – the unforgettable ‘Israelites.’ I was never ever sure if I got the words right but I remember my version of his song which started off: “Get up every morning same thing for breakfast…”
In a word Des was a legend and he’d re-recorded ‘Israelites’ and a bunch of other songs for his first release on Stiff. Cheekily Robbo decided to call the album Black & Dekker!
I rang up the music papers and told them we were releasing Des’s new album. I was trawling for a journalist who would want to interview Des and let the world know his new record was available in the shops. I didn’t expect it to be easy but I never thought it would be that hard. No one was interested – not a soul. I stared at the wall searching for inspiration and decided I would interview Des myself. Heck I might learn something and at the very least it would give the man the impression that we were on the case.
Des appeared in my office, removed his beret, and settled down in front of the tape recorder. My first impression was it was as if I was interviewing an old Mississippi blues man: he was famous, he’d written hit songs, he’d changed the face of modern music and he didn’t have a bean. We went back to his first days in Jamaica and Des explained how he’d worked as a welder during the day and as a musician in his spare time and had recorded his first four songs for a local producer who’d given him pennies for the rights to his songs.
During one summer, the English cricket team came to play the West Indies. Des and another young welder would clock in to work in the morning then slip out of the welder’s yard and run to the cricket ground where the match was taking place. Having no money they climbed onto the roof of the cricket ground and watched the game from there.
By this time Des was an established artist in Jamaica, though of course still as poor and as innocent of the concept of royalties as that poor Mississippi blues-man, and Des’s young friend played him some songs and asked if Des could introduce him to the producer who had made Des a star. Impressed by the young man’s talent Des took him along to the studio and the producer recorded the young man’s songs. When Des asked for some kind of credit for discovering this new talent he was quickly shown the door. Des never received a penny for his kindness.
The young man was Bob Marley.
Des’s life was a collection of many such wonderful tales and, pretending I was writing an article for a paper, I transcribed his interview ready for the albums release. I sent out the article with Desmond’s new album and heard nothing. No journalists rang up wanting to talk with Des and hear for themselves the details of his wonderful stories about ‘It Mek’, ‘Israelites’ and what it was like coming to England as a Jamaican pop star. I was crushed.
But then the newspapers hit the stands. All four music papers printed articles headlined: Man who discovered Bob Marley releases new album. My article was printed word for word in regional papers up and down the country – usually with the local journalists name listed as the writer – I didn’t care: I’d had a pleasant afternoon in my office with a living legend and done my job.
Des died suddenly from a heart attack last week. He was 64. In the New York Times obituary it says that Bob Marley discovered Des not the other way around. Already the truth is being distorted but I’m sure Des would smile wryly and this quiet man would be proud that his life is being celebrated in the world’s largest newspapers.